Pacers Escape The Play-In, Reaffirm That The Hawks Are A 10th-Place Team

The Atlanta Hawks had no compelling reasons to put forth maximum effort Sunday in Indianapolis. They were locked in the 10-hole in the Eastern Conference, set to play the ninth-seeded Chicago Bulls this coming Wednesday. If they win that, they’ll play in Miami or Philadelphia on Friday, and if they win that, they’ll face the Boston Celtics in the first round of the big-kids playoffs. All they had to do today was show up to the Pacers’ home court, run back and forth for a little over two hours just enough to keep Adam Silver off their asses, get nobody hurt, and make it to the airport in time.

And they still barely managed the minimum required of them.

The Pacers, who actually did kind of need to win to avoid the play-in round altogether, made 14 of their first 18 shots, 12 of their first 15 shots in the third quarter, and 65 of their 100 total shots on the way to a 157-115 victory. This is the kind of bloated box score you can expect from the NBA’s getaway day, when the combatants have different motivations, urges and tee times. Look at the low comedy and no drama in Mavericks-Thunder, or Kings-Blazers—or for draft position slaps and giggles, Pistons-Spurs.

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In fairness, this might not have been the Hawks taking the day off simply by design. They seem to be this way against the Pacers preternaturally. The Hawks coughed up 157 in November and 150 in January, both losses for Atlanta. Indeed, Indiana’s entire ethos is doing this: The Pacers led the league in games with more than 120 points (53), 130 (25), 140 (11) and 150 (four). Frankly, if anyone is to be blamed for Sunday, it’s the league office for not knowing the Pacers and Hawks at their respective essences when the schedule was assembled.

But the Hawks don’t get off free here. They had most of their roster dressed and playing at one level or another. The only way this ends up working well for them is if the Bulls, who lost in overtime Sunday to the New York Knicks, are just too tired and beaten up to embarrass Atlanta’s defense on Wednesday. It never works that way, of course, but it allows those Hawks fans who watched a sub-.500 team to dream.

For their part, the Pacers’ reward is to play a first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, who are frantically hoping Giannis Antetokounmpo’s calf strain will heal by the start of the real season. Even allowing for the fact that the postseason is the time of year when the ball does indeed stop, the Pacers will do their damnedest to disprove the easily proven. And if by some weird happenstance they get to play the Hawks again later this postseason … well, Merry Christmas, kids. If you can’t have Wemby, you can at least dream of this.

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